Who are we without our memories? From South Africa to China, Wyoming to Lithuania, the disparate stories in Anthony Doerr’s Memory Wall are linked by their ability to capture the pathos of the human condition in stunning prose. In “Village 113,” a rural Chinese village is marked as one of hundreds to be destroyed in a man-made flood of the Yangtze River. The seed-keeper of the village must make the painful choice either to move to the city where her son, a government official instrumental in the village’s destruction, lives disconnected from his past, or stay in the only home she’s ever known and drown. The fifteen-year-old orphaned evangelical narrator of “The River Nemunas” is sent to live with her grandfather in Lithuania, where she struggles to hold onto memories of her mother by tracing the river paths her mother took as a young child. In the collection’s beautiful title story, the lives of three South Africans are irrevocably linked by the legacies of apartheid and the greater arc that draws us together: our humanity borne through our memories.
The Saints And Sinners in Edna O'Brien's latest collection are mostly downtrodden Irish folk caught in an unforgiving world where grace is the exception, not the rule. The narrator in "Madame Cassandra" is desperate for information about what she already knows—that her husband is cheating on her with a girl young enough to be his granddaughter—and seeks out a fortuneteller to deliver the news. When, by chance, the narrator and her husband meet on the train as he returns from his illicit rendezvous, a kernel of hope is sewn into the final paragraphs. In "Inner Cowboy" a mentally disabled man runs up against a greedy real-estate developer, and the unexpected turns and quick pacing intensify the heartbreaking ending. In my favorite of the collection, "Green Georgette," an impoverished young girl and her mother unwillingly provide cover for a wealthy woman's affair with the local doctor, and the girl's mounting rage symbolically explodes into violence. O'Brien's spare yet lyric language hypnotizes.
Leslie Marmon Silko, author of the longstanding favorite, Ceremony, fuses elements of her family’s heritage with Native myths and reflections on the natural world in her beautiful memoir THE TURQUOISE LEDGE (Viking, $25.95). In her preface, Silko acknowledges that memory is imagination at work. Her imaginative self-storytelling travels across boundaries of time to share aspects of her life as they are remembered; she discusses her first divorce alongside the eradication of the Laguna language. Silko’s insight is shaped by the spiritual power of nature and a keen appreciation for the contradictions and ironies within Native history. Her stories are unified by turquoise and her vision of the world is straightforward: the landscapes of the rapidly changing natural world are woven with memories of the past and cautions to a future that are each complicated by the loss of languages, cultures, and land.